Mauritshuis modernisation impresses author of Girl with a Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier, the writer and curator, revisits the Dutch museum and its inspirational work by Vermeer
By Javier Pes. Web only
Published online: 02 July 2014
On the night that the Mauritshuis reopened last Friday, 27 July, the Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague welcomed around 1,950 visitors. Among those who visited the rejuvenated gallery of Dutch Golden Age paintings a week earlier was Tracy Chevalier, the US-born writer and curator.
The author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was inspired by a poster of the Mauritshuis’s famous portrait by Vermeer that hung on her bedroom wall (and now in the room where she writes in London), is among the many impressed by the gallery’s modernisation, which is sympathetic to its historic, intimate character.
Chevalier tells The Art Newspaper that although it looks as if “not much has changed”, new windows, lighting and specially woven silk wall fabric in the gallery’s rooms means it feels “fresher and brighter” and other more subtle changes “make all the difference”. The first time Chevalier visited was 18 years ago when she recalls the institution felt “a little fusty”.
She says that it is interesting to compare Vermeer’s often reproduced portrait before and after it was cleaned in 1994. It was conserved before it went on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Chevalier was born in the US capital where her father worked as a photographer for the Washington Post.) “They uncovered all kinds of goodies,” she says, referring to details obscured by layers of yellowed varnish.
That said, she prefers to keep a poster of The Girl before she was cleaned on her study wall. It is the version that she first saw, aged 19, in her sister's bedroom, while she was a student in Boston. “I went out and bought a copy the next day,” Chevalier says. It is the same version that people saw, she says, “in dental offices waiting to have their cavities done”. Today, with images of the portrait instantly available on the internet and via mobile phones and tablets, seeing reproductions of Vermeer’s painting will perhaps be less memorable.
Meanwhile, in Danson House, an 18th-century mansion in south east London run by Bexley Heritage Trust, Chevalier the curator has organised “Things We Do in Bed”, an exhibition of historic and contemporary quilts (until 3 October). She was invited by the trust and the charity Fine Cell Works to collaborate with the inmates of Wandsworth Prison to create Sleep Quilt for the show. She learned how to quilt while researching her novel The Last Runaway.
“Sleep is a big issue in prison,” she says. “It is very hard to get a good night’s sleep sharing a cell—and it’s the time of the night when there are a lot of thoughts of regrets, guilt and despair.” These emotions, and a certain droll humour, are expressed in the individual squares that form Sleep Quilt. The 60-strong group made the pieces, which a smaller band then stitched together along with Chevalier. Besides historic quilts, the show, which is organised around the bedtime activities of sex, birth, illness, death and sleep, includes work by artists including Grayson Perry, Sara Impey, Karina Thompson and Michele Walker.
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